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Governance in India is a relic of its colonial past

Preserving the status quo: As seen in the World Economic Forum, the economic system which has allowed the rich to grow richer leaving those of us less fortunate further and further behind. India’s governance is a part of that problem

columns Updated: Jan 27, 2019 08:25 IST
Mark Tully
Mark Tully
Corporate Social Responsibility,good governance,colonial government
The World Inequality Report found that since 1980 the top 1% of the world’s population have captured 27% of the new wealth while the bottom half, more than 3 billion people had to share just 12% among themselves (Representational photo)(File Photo)

This has been Davos week, the week when the good and the great have gathered in the Swiss ski resort to make changes which will put the world right, but have they actually met, as some believe, to preserve the status quo? By status quo, I mean an economic system which has allowed the rich to grow richer leaving those of us less fortunate further and further behind. In this Davos week, the British daily, The Guardian, published an extract from the American writer Anand Giridharadas’s new book Winners Take All:The Elite Charade of Changing the World. He quotes the World Inequality Report, which reveals that since 1980, the top 1% of the world’s population have captured 27% of the new wealth, while the bottom half, more than 3 billion people, had to share just 12% among themselves. The average pretax income of the top 10% of Americans has doubled, and 0.001% have found themselves, or made themselves, seven times richer. Fifty per cent of Americans have remained “almost precisely where they were”.

Giridharadas maintains that delegates at conferences of the world’s rich, like the World Economic Forum in Davos, try to control anger about the status quo by promoting “thought leaders who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults”. This amounts to the very people and institutions who have benefitted from the faults in the system, which have enabled them to prosper so spectacularly, promoting themselves as leaders in the attempt to create a more equal world. They only propose tinkering with the present system, thus avoiding any threat to their self interest.

Giridharadas also argues that much of the philanthropy of plutocrats and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of big corporations only serves to disguise the impact of the inequality by bringing about some improvements without taking measures to solve the problem. He quotes the example of a slave trader who made much of treating his slaves well to take attention away from the basic evil of slavery. It would be wrong to deny the value of philanthropy like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s contribution to reducing inequities in health, but who can deny that the prime purpose of corporate social responsibility is all too often softening the harsh image corporations have acquired? Does CSR not present the private sector as dedicated to the public interest when in fact it’s dedicated to growth and profits? Neither philanthropy nor CSR is tackling the faults in the faulty system.

There is a parallel here with governance in India. It ’s generally agreed that we are governed by a system which is faulty. It’s a system which is a relic of a colonial government with government employees behaving as though they were still ruling India rather than serving Indians. The government’s so-called servants collude with politicians to share power and steal money from the poor rather than ensuring they get what is their due.

When addressing the National Development Council as prime minister in 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee said: “People often perceive the bureaucracy as an agent of exploitation rather than a provider of service. Corruption has become a low risk and high reward activity.” He went on to tell his fellow politicians: “While expecting discipline and diligence from the administration, the political executive should review its own performance.”

No such review has taken place because politicians are the beneficiaries of the present system This government has attempted to improve governance by delivering money to beneficiaries of its schemes electronically. But isn’t that similar to the plutocrats trying to “improve lives within a faulty system without tackling the faults”? Could it not be seen as doing something to take attention away from the real extent of the problem of bad governance? The evidence so far indicates that the economist, Ashoka Mody, was right when he said: “ Technology without new institutions and incentive will never renew water or deliver core education, health services and public services.”

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jan 27, 2019 08:25 IST